(Mr.Samarth Agarwall is the National President of the NGO Make a Difference popularly known as MAD. In addition he also heads the Delhi chapter of the organisation. An SRCC alumnus he gave up a career as an investment banker to take up the challenging task of fighting educational inequity in India. MAD draws its volunteers from college students who are required to devote four hours a week to teach English to children in orphanages and shelter homes. It is one of the largest growing youth empowering networks in the country. Here are some excerpts from a telephonic interview with Mr.Samarth Agarwall.)
I had already worked with MAD for two years, while continuing with my earlier job. I have always been entrepreneurial in nature and more specifically was bitten by the education bug. So I decided to take up an entrepreneurial and leadership role by becoming in charge of the Delhi chapter of MAD.
What made you choose MAD?
Having been a part of it for two years it was something I believed in strongly. MAD is an organisation that provides college students with an opportunity to take up a responsible role in bringing about a change and providing such opportunities to them is important and MAD acts as one such avenue. MAD is a non-profit organisation giving opportunities to young people to emerge as leaders.
At present MAD centres are mostly located in the bigger cities. The inequalities of education are even more glaring in the smaller towns of India, where even private schools do not offer good quality education. Do you plan to take MAD to the smaller towns?
MAD centres are currently there in 19 cities and new centres are coming up in five to six cities. There are plans of expanding to the Tier I and Tier II cities. However MAD is focussed on a volunteer base of urban youth, who would not want to go and work in the rural areas. Since the main aim of the organisation is to teach English, we need volunteers of certain standards and particularly strong grounding in English. It is difficult to find this kind of a volunteer base in the smaller towns.
Is inadequate funding also an impediment in expanding to smaller towns?
Each city needs to be self-sufficient in terms of funding and it is challenging to raise funds in smaller towns. The sources of our funds are generally community donations and not the corporate sector. We have MAD centres today in smaller cities like Cochin and Vellore. The centres in the smaller cities are often supported through funds raised in the metropolis like Delhi and Mumbai.
Apart from a student volunteer base MAD also has an Employee Volunteer Programme, can you throw some light on this programme.
This programme is mainly linked to the Placement Projects of MAD which aim at giving the children an exposure to the outside world and creating career awareness. The children are taken to these companies so that they can get an idea of the employment opportunities that will be available to them once they learn to master the English language. Employees find it difficult to commit themselves to our teaching projects and at present form 20 per cent of our volunteer base.
You make some investment in training your volunteers, are you faced with situations of volunteers leaving mid-way and how do you attempt to combat it?
Since the work is voluntary, so we cannot forcibly hold anybody. Our volunteers go through stringent recruitment process and we ensure that we recruit the best. Those who get through have to make a minimal security deposit of Rs.750 to prevent them from leaving mid-session. Despite our eight month commitment programme our drop out is less than 15 per cent.
Do your volunteers need to resort to using vernacular languages while explaining concepts in class and do you require volunteers to be fluent in regional language as well?
I think it serves our purpose best when the volunteers do not know the vernacular languages because using it hampers the child’s efforts in learning a new language. For e.g.- When you go to learn a new foreign language take for instance French and from the very first class your teacher uses only French in class, you will be left with no option but to make attempts at understanding and learning it. However most often volunteers instinctively turn to using vernaculars and it is difficult to curb instincts though we try to curtail this practice as much as possible.
You have a five level programme through which you try to bring an improvement in the child’s communication skills vis-a-vis English. The capacity of every child to grasp a new language is not likely to be the same. So how do you ensure good quality output with each child and decide whether a child is fit to be promoted to the next level?
The children whom we teach are those staying in orphanages and are enrolled in government schools hence our aim is not to promote literacy but to improve their English speaking and writing skills. In government schools children are promoted upto Class VIII without any kind of proper evaluation and without any consideration as to whether they are even suited to be promoted to the next class. As a result they hardly receive any education worth mentioning.
We have our own syllabus and it is imperative that the child should be going to school. The class range that we cater to is Class V to VIII. We conduct a base line assessment test to decide the level appropriate for each child and we put around 10 to 12 children in a class. We try to put together children of the same competence and nearly the same age group in a class. Through our periodic assessment tests we determine the areas of weakness of every child and work towards improving it. Not many children are able to move on to the next level and it is not imperative for us to pass every child. A child needs to clear the assessment test before being considered for the next level.
MAD aims to empower children in a way that will improve their employment opportunities in the future, but isn’t this approach a bit narrow in the sense that it takes away the joy of learning.
You have to be a part of the MAD class to understand how much fun and creativity we to bring into our classes. Some of the best private schools will like to have a programme like ours. For people like us who have had the privilege of receiving a good higher education unemployment is never going to be the concern rather we would be worried about the kind of package that we are likely to get. But for these children whose primary education has been of a poor standard and who have seen their alumni’s take up menial professions of peons and conductors’ even basic employability is a concern. Hence our focus remains English because it is not just needed to secure a job but it is also the language in which education is imparted at our colleges. Currently the medium of instruction in government schools upto Class VIII is Hindi, and after that there is a sudden transition to English. Very few students are able to cope up with this change and continue with their school education whereas most of them drop out. Even those who go upto Class XII fail to make it to college. The only available job for a XII th pass is of a peon, for which the minimum requirement is a basic education upto Class VIII. This gives rise to a ripple effect where a person tends to think that there is no need to even finish school education if one has to take up the job of a peon, they can drop out after Class VIII. When the children know English they can move on to become graduates and hence take up better office jobs in the future. So, there can be nothing as ‘fun learning’ if there is no learning mechanism in the first place. First we need to bring in the learning aspect and then talk about the fun aspect.
Now we have fellowship programmes like Teach for India which brings in passionate and dynamic young graduates and professionals to teach in low cost private schools and municipal schools. MAD has different approach of creating a system parallel to the formal education which the children are receiving in school. What do you think are the difference in the kind of impact that the two approaches will make and which one is likely to create a better impact in changing the education scenario?
I feel TFI is an excellent model which brings in people to work full time in the education sector. Our model is totally different although we are working towards the same ends of dismantling educational diaparity. Full time engagement definitely adds a lot to a child’s life. But we benefit much larger number of children than TFI does. Scalability will be a problem for TFI, in addition to bringing in such a large number of people for a full time commitment. We are able to benefit 3500 children across 19 cities in India, which includes 400 children in Delhi itself. We enter a child’s life as early as Class V and become like their parents. Our aim is to enter the child’s life on all seven days of the week. The more the children see us the more they believe in themselves and English serves as an excuse to enter their lives.
Where do see MAD in the next five years?
Being the National President of MAD I hope to continue with our task of empowering children through youngsters. We are planning to take MAD to 40 cities and try to interact with our children on all seven days. We already have in action our libraries and career awareness programmes. We are piloting a maths and science project as well by designing an appropriate syllabus for the same.